I began to understand the extraordinary ground-level campaign to elect Barack Obama as a social movement fusing aspirations for economic levelling with hostility to racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism and environmental degradation.
People not normally involved in elections were engaged and enthused. Campaigners chattered about replacing the discredited “trickle-down effect” with a “trickle-up effect”. Grotesque degrees of class inequality angered people as much as the war on Iraq.
The voter registration drive conducted by progressive community organisation ACORN was crucial. Millions typically feel insufficiently inspired to register, but this time there were record new enrolments – disproportionately people from poor circumstances, minority groups and students. The Obama movement represented the radical underbelly of US politics normally marginalised during elections.
The Democrats harnessed this movement’s energies. In Portsmouth the Democrats’ office was a daily hive of activity from 7am to midnight. A cardboard replica of Obama and a triage coordinator staffed the entrance. Streams of volunteers were directed to different coordinators. Dozens of people made phone calls to voters or did data entry. Food donations were laid out by a coordinator who answered her mobile phone as “Food Mama for Obama”.
Ground level campaigning was called “GO TV” – Get Out the Vote. We were joined once by Dean, a homeless 39 year old, who had lost his job and felt Obama was his best bet for another chance. Another time, I shared a street corner with two long-time Democratic voters: middle-aged Debbie with a handmade “Women for Obama” sign who had never before felt excited enough to campaign; and retiree Walt, who said it would be the first time he could vote for someone he really wanted to be president.
Election day was an all-out effort. Standing in icy weather from 7am at polling stations, we were entertained by the Leftist Marching Band, with tunes such as Bella Ciao and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Afterwards I did five hours data entry, entering voter codes rung in from poll checkers. At 4pm dozens of us reported to the construction workers’ union office for final canvassing. When the polls closed we converged to watch CNN. When it called the election for Obama the jubilation was deafening.
Departing Boston airport two days later I saw a conga-line of people wearing Service Employees International Union purple T-shirts, weaving their way through the airport chanting, “The people united will never be defeated.”
Verity Burgmann was a participant observer in the election.
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